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Black Elk/Harney Peak

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Custer State Park, one of the premiere outdoor destinations in South Dakota’s Black Hills, protects gorgeous mountain streams, sparkling Sylvan Lake, and pine forests dotted with massive granite outcrops - including the state highpoint, 7,242 ft Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak).

Harney Peak, officially renamed Black Elk Peak in 2016, actually lies within the boundaries of the Black Elk Wilderness, but the trailheads to reach the summit are all located at Custer State Park - no permits are required to climb to the summit, but the park does require an entry fee.

Several trails lead to the highpoint, but the easiest and most traveled route to the top is via Custer State Park Trail #9 - this out and back trail is 3.4 miles one way (6.8 roundtrip), and gains 1,550 feet of elevation from Sylvan Lake.

Beginning at the lake, the trail makes a relatively gentle ascent for the first mile, then you descend gradually, eventually crossing Lost Cabin Creek - at mile 0.75, the Lost Cabin #2 Trail joins from the left, turn right and continue hiking along Trail #9. Views of granite spires jutting out of the Ponderosa pine forest, and flakes of mica underfoot, sparkling in the sunlight, abound along this section of the hike.

At mile 1.4 you enter the Black Elk Wilderness - a kiosk is located at this boundary and all hikers must sign the register and display the Day Use tag on their backpack. Throughout this section of the hike, we all enjoyed watching butterflies hitch a ride on Rizlee - they especially loved her hat, following her and landing on her for almost a mile.

As you continue your way to the summit, you will be rewarded with several incredible viewpoints - one rocky outcrop, off to the left of the trail, provides spectacular views of Black Elk Peak.

The final ascent, approximately a mile or so, increases in steepness - switchbacks zigzag their way up the rocky slope, climbing in earnest to the pinnacle of South Dakota. Black Elk Peak not only holds the title of highest point in South Dakota, it’s also the highest mountain in the Black Hills, and the highest summit east of the Rockies and west of the Pyrenees in Europe.

When you reach the intersection with the Norbeck Trail #3, you have reached mile 2.6 - just 0.8 mile to go!

The last push to the summit involves climbing several sets of stone stairs - the steps weave in and out of rock tunnels, the sets broken up by a steel staircase.

Finally the summit comes into view - the historic stone fire tower looms above.

One final staircase and you’re standing on the state highpoint - on a clear day you will have views of four states (South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska), the backside of Mount Rushmore, and Little Devils Tower.

From the summit the views are breathtaking - take your time and enjoy the beautiful 360 degree panorama that is unobscured for miles.

We explored the fire tower, the rocky summit, and enjoyed a picnic lunch before retracing our steps back to the trailhead - thanks to a beautiful day, and fantastic vistas, Harney Peak quickly became one of our favorite hikes!


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